The Danger of Half-Round Characters


Thank you to everyone who asked to hear more about my novel-in-progress.

It’s going very well, although time is short. I’m a little stunned by how quickly the revising process is going — but I’m still unsure if I will be able to complete the project by my deadline.

Six weeks ago, the situation was this: I had written a nearly complete draft (pictured above). It was done, including opening epigraphs and concluding epilogue, apart from an intractable problem in the middle — there was a part I kept failing to write.

I could not make progress on this (significant) part of the book, and so, in order to keep typing, I simply wrote a note to reader apologising, and kept going. This problem part comprised the entire ending of the second section of the novel. Even after I finished the book’s epilogue, I was still unsure how to fix the problem in its middle.

When I showed the manuscript to my adviser here at UT, the novelist Michael Knight, someone whose instincts about fiction I completely trust, he gave me a radical solution: to fix the problem, I should cut two major characters from the novel. Remove them entirely. He argued that although the problems they caused only showed up in the second section (the part set in 1780), they were all along excess to requirements, and they should have never been introduced to the first section (the part set ten years before, in 1770).

I weighed up the idea. I decided it was correct. And then I started to revise.

This involved a lot of work. I am required to present my novel, as complete as I can get it, to my dissertation committee (two novelists, and two professors who study 18th century literature) by the end of May (the end of this month, in other words), in order to “defend” the project at the end of June, and thus complete my PhD in time to begin my post-doctoral lectureship in mid-August.

No pressure, right?


Since the start of April (about six weeks ago), I have re-imagined, revised, and rewritten 95,000 words. This is going to be a long book: ninety-five thousand words only takes me about two thirds through: I still have to re-write the third part of the story. But the good news is that now I think I can do it.

Along the way, I feel like I’ve learned something about the danger, when writing a novel, of what I would call “half-round” characters.

I now suspect that the inclusion of too many “half-round” characters was what kept me from completing a really good version of the story.

Let me explain.

The idea of “half-round” characters is my own addition to E.M. Forster’s famous concept about the novel. Forster argued that fictional characters can be divided into two groups: flat and round. The idea is simple: over the course of a novel, flat characters do not change. Round characters do.

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Flat characters, Forster says, are types, or background characters.

The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as ‘I will never desert Mr Micawber.’ There is Mrs Micawber — she says she won’t desert Mr Micawber; she doesn’t, and there she is.

Charles Dickens is considered the master of such characters, and he fills novels like Great Expectations with a huge cast of lively, engaging, memorable “types.”

Round characters, in contrast, show more and more of themselves as the story progresses. As time passes in the story, as the reader turns one page after another, we discover other sides of a round character. We are seeing them from one angle, then another. Round characters seem, says Forster, as though they could easily go on living outside of their book. It is not necessarily that such characters change for the better during the novel, but just that, through their multi-facet-ness, they demonstrate the complexities of a real being. Jane Austen’s protagonists are perhaps the archetypes of this sort of character, practically real people with hidden depths, who adjust, reflect, and learn as their story progresses.

That’s Forster’s premise. He also points out that there is no reason to dislike flat characters. The distinction is not meant to be a criticism, and a poorly-drawn round character is in no sense “better” than a well-drawn flat one. Indeed, a visionary or allegorical novel like Beloved or Moby Dick might be well-served by a strong cast of flat characters, whose very type-ness allows them to serve as metaphors, embodied arguments, representatives of a class or personality trait.

If Captain Ahab were rounder, he would be less effective.

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If that was Forster’s idea of round and flat characters, what do I mean, therefore, by “half-round” characters? And why are they a particular problem?

It’s worth mentioning, first of all, that I now believe that I made this problem harder for myself because of the structure I chose (or stumbled upon) for my novel.

My book, This City is a Clock, is a work of historical-magical fiction, set in 18th century Edinburgh. It has three sections, each set ten years apart (from 1770 to 1791), and each is about 40,000 words long: three semi-distinct stories about the main character as he grows from a strangely gifted boy into ambitious young adulthood, and then into regretful maturity.

Over the same period of time, the city of Edinburgh is transformed by the creation of the new town, and by the country’s revolutions in science and industry.

Like any decent historical novelist, I peopled the world of my book with a variety of flat characters, some of whom I invented out of whole cloth, and some who I drew from the historical record. James Boswell shows up a couple of times in my novel, for instance, and to my reserved, moralistic protagonist, Boswell always seems the embodiment of decadency and debauchery. Each time Boswell shows up, he staggers into the conversation, bearing the symptoms of whatever veneral disease he is current suffering from, says something literary and witty, and departs. He’s a flat character, and, I hope, a good one.

Similarly, the novel has a much smaller number of round characters: the protagonist and the people closest to him. These characters grow and change through the story, revealing new opinions, undertaking new struggles. In particular, my novel revolves around a love triangle between the three main characters, and all three develop in unexpected ways as they grow from childhood into maturity.

But the story also contained a number of characters who I would now call “half-round.” These were characters who showed up in the first section, and who seemed round, who changed over time, and who forced the protagonist to spend time learning about their hidden sides. However, although these characters had desires and opinions, they somehow lacked (for large sections of the book) a real, discernible human goal. It was impossible to say, for most of the story, if their desires were in alignment or in conflict with the protagonist’s.

I want to be clear: one of the half-round characters that I agreed to cut from the story was major. He was the protagonist’s magical equal, early readers thought he was funny, he was an increasingly bizarre and horrible force, and he was the primary antagonist of the book’s conclusion.

Why would such a character be a bad thing?

Well — I think I had not realised, when I started this book, how “expensive” each round (and half-round) character would be.

Let me try to explain this.

Flat characters make very low demands (for their author). They require no explanation for their arrival. They show up in a scene, say their lines, and when the narrator abandons them, no reader wonders about their fate. They are presumed to simply exist in the world, and the conventions of narrative fiction mean that they can disappear as soon as they are no longer required. No one wonders how they make a living or whether their desires are being met. If, over the course of a novel, we meet them ten years later, and they have changed completely, that change has happened entirely “off-camera,” and they are now just as fixed in their new identity as they were in their earlier one.

Round characters, however, do not share this ease of use. They require structural support. They are tied up in the workings of the plot; they need to react and reflect on events (in order that they change in a semi-comprehensible, semi-distinct way). They probably need plot threads of their own, individual journeys on which they are embarked, and each time the reader re-encounters one of them, she will likely expect to discover how far that plan has developed.

As a result, while round characters can be absent from the story for a good while, when they come back, they require an explanation, a grounding. And, while they have their own private goals and intentions, for the story to be a well-told one, it seems likely that these goals and intentions should conflict with and complicate the protagonist’s. In a novel with a single POV protagonist, like my novel, every round character’s mission has to interact, even if only tangentially, with his.

Perhaps even worse: if these round (or half-round) characters are not POV characters in their own right (in other words, that we do not get their perspective directly from the narrator, or in their own words), they will necessarily require a POV character to spend substantial amounts of time listening to them, seeking them out, learning what they’ve been up to, arguing with their claims.

This suggests, therefore, that if a novel has too many round characters, the author may struggle to keep the story moving.

(Of course, this could simply be the result of my current limitations as a novelist. More experienced writers should offer alternate explanations in the comments!)

My writing friend, Matthew Blasi, calls this problem “the pressures of equanimity.” (He was kind enough to license this term for the purposes of this essay.) As a novelist, one creates interesting characters in a not-fully-conscious manner, dreaming them up, adding them to a story, and then building up their reality-ness and complexity on the page. Even if one has a detailed outline to follow, a writer’s work, when drafting, is still to create and create, pouring out language as best one can, seeing what works in the moment.

Once such characters are in the story, however, because you are a good, decent writer, you feel the pressure to use said characters again and again, to do right by them, to give them a significant journey, a real role in the action.

This is an admirable trait in you, the author. It’s a sign that the people in your fictional world feel real to you, that the story is vital and fecund. It’s a also sign that you have an ethical relationship with them, and a world bound by such relationships seems like one in which a reader would enjoy spending time. But that same impulse can also be disastrous if not kept in check. As these characters multiply, the need to keep returning to them can make the plot sprawl out of easy comprehensibility, or (if you are lucky) can simply swell the size of the manuscript far, far beyond your intentions.

The pressures of equanimity can lead you, the writer, to devote more attention to serving the needs of your minor characters than working on the actual story, the central tension of the situation, the things the protagonist really cares about. The plot becomes subordinate to introducing and re-introducing a series of interesting characters, to inventing detours which you invent simply to bring one minor character back into focus, to update the reader on their progress. And plot is already difficult enough!

On the one hand, you are trying to tell the reader (through the set up and exposition and whatever) to be interested in one thing, the conflicts and desires of your protagonist, and the reader turns pages ready to be engaged in what unfolds, but, confusingly, the action on the pages that follow seems to be presenting a quite different set of priorities.

Rather than immediately sending the protagonist off to try to get the things she wants, and thus reassuring the reader that he has correctly understood the kind of story you are telling, you instead send that protagonist off to track down some other character, to learn about their desires and wants, to encounter a quite different set of priorities.

My novel’s structure brought this tension to a breaking point. Because I had three separate sections, three self-contained stories, each set ten years apart, at the start of the second and third section, I had to begin by re-introducing all my round characters. In the second section in particular, this made for chaos. Rather than helping me tell a clear story, I was instead diverting myself, over and over, to have my protagonist go looking for this minor character, or be startled by the appearance of that other one.

When I removed the two characters which my professor had marked for death, suddenly there was more space in which to work. This confusing middle part of the book no longer seemed so overwhelming, because I didn’t have so many threads to keep track of. I could actually ask — what is this story about? And then I could ask — what crisis could strike, in the opening movement of the story, that would most challenge my protagonist?

I could then design a story (for that middle section) that was clear from the first scene to the end.

The interesting question, then, is how my advisor knew which characters to tell me to cut. And I think that the characters he picked were the right ones to remove because they were, in fact, not fully round to begin with. They were, I now think, “half-round,” and thus the most difficult to work with of all.

These “half-round” characters had a kind of journey to go on. And as a result, they required all the structural underpinnings of a round character. But they were not quite central to the plot, or perhaps they weren’t really changing as the story progresses. They were totally dependent on interactions with the main character to give them life. One clue for spotting a half-round character is that it’s hard to know what to do with them at the end of the story. It’s easy to introduce them, but hard to bring their part of the narrative to a conclusion, because they never actually had a conflict to begin with. Often, an untimely death is the best thing that can happen to a half-rounder, because it prevents you, the writer, from having to spend even more page-time explaining their exit from the narrative.

It gets worse. Your half-round characters may also be taking valuable scenes away from your truly central characters.

Rather than giving a genuinely round character more time to grow and reveal additional facets, you are instead pushing them off to the side while this half-round character gets their five pages in the sun. That minor character’s monologue about the security systems of Switzerland, for instance, could have been a speech delivered by your major character, and which would have opened up a surprising new side to the reader’s interaction with that character.

That, at least, is what I’ve found: once I removed the two half-round characters, the remaining characters expanded, flowed unexpectedly into the scenes that the half-rounders had previously occupied. The round characters became far more interesting and complex, and that also, in turn, is now helping me devise a more interesting plot.

This week, I completed the revision of the second section of my novel. It was an intensely emotional moment. I had fixed the problem area, the part I could never write. It was the first time I was able to get down on the page the story I had long imagined, the first time I had not been blocked or derailed. And I think removing those characters was a key part of my success.

With them gone, the story became much more clear.

 

9 thoughts on “The Danger of Half-Round Characters

  1. Congratulations on finishing the revision of the second section, you must have been working so hard! I’m just learning how to write so I’m finding your blog really helpful. Best wishes with the third section. Tess 🐾

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hm…This seems to be hitting ouchfully close to home, but I have to consider it some more. (There’s a chance I’ll shake my head later and say, Naaah! –but the smart thing would be to return to this thought later and then REALLY take it seriously!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great essay, Daniel.

    Coming from a background in screenwriting, I tend to place characters in one of two categories: those with a transformational arc and those without (which is really just Forster’s “flat and round” designation by another name). Characters who arc are necessarily going to be weighted more heavily than those who don’t, because the whole point of the plot is to force them to confront their psychic wound/emotional shortcoming and push through it. The more arcs a story supports, the more complex the storytelling does in fact become, as you yourself noted above, because often those arcs need to work like counterparts in a Swiss watch.

    Consider, for example, the original Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi, in self-imposed exile when we meet him, finds the strength to face his greatest failure — the moral corruption of his pupil Darth Vader. To help him, he capitalizes on the eager idealism of Luke Skywalker, who, over the course of their adventure, learns his place in the “grand design” — that he is destined to be so much more than a mere farmhand, but rather the self-sacrificing savior of the galaxy (an arc that continues to develop over the next two movies). Luke’s idealism — his commitment to the cause — challenges Han Solo’s selfishness and lack of ethics, which in turn compels him to grow into an honorable hero in his own right. And Han’s personal growth forces cold-fish Leia to reconsider her first impressions of him; in the process, she falls in love, and learns to be emotionally vulnerable (an arc that comes to fruition in The Empire Strikes Back). So, what you have in Star Wars is deceptively complex, emotionally resonant storytelling, because each of those characters is wrestling with personal growth, inciting a chain reaction that ripples through all of them in one way or another.

    Other characters, however, like Chewbacca, R2-D2, and Grand Moff Tarkin, are flat — they experience no growth or catharsis. (Which is not to say they’re not interesting.) When I plot my own stories, I always try to work in as many appropriate transformational arcs as possible (I plan them meticulously from the outset), and then those characters carry a greater share of the narrative’s emotional weight. It helps me keep the story focused.

    Liked by 1 person

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